As far as unexpected cover renditions go, Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols putting their own spin Jonathan Richman’s rock and roll hit ‘Roadrunner’ is right up there. The song, which is inspired by the many times Richman witnessed the Velvet Underground perform live, is said to derive directly from Lou Reed-written track ‘Sister Ray’, which, in many ways, is a million miles away from the ethos of everyone’s favourite brattish punks. However, as we’ve seen many times before, Jonathan Richman has a knack for uniting unusual areas of the music industry.
“Only five thousand people ever bought a Velvet Underground album,” Brian Eno famously said, “But every single one of them started a band.” That quote has stood the test of time, and it could not be more fitting to Jonathan Richman. The love-in didn’t stop there, either: “If the Velvet Underground had a protégé,” Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison said, “It would be Jonathan Richman.”
Even Lou Reed, who was more than willing to dish out scathing criticism from time to time, couldn’t hold back his adoration: “I love Jonathan Richman,” he said. “There’s something about Jonathan.”
Richman’s influence is far-reaching, even if he remains too modest to accept that himself. In 1976, when Rotten and the band were in the studio laying down a recording of Chuck Berry‘s legendary song ‘Johnny B. Goode’ for their soundtrack album The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, the Sex Pistols somewhat accidentally rolled into a rendition of ‘Roadrunner’.
Despite the fact that the Pistols’ lead singer famously stated that he despises modern music, he did offer a few very rare complimentary words for Richman and his hit track by naming ‘Roadrunner’ as his favourite song many moons ago — even if he didn’t know all the lyrics.
The conversation with Rotten, who told Spin magazine that he “hates all
music”, would accidentally result in the most surprising of endorsements. “Not one song?” replied the interviewer. “Oh yeah,” Rotten responded. “’Roadrunner’ by the Modern Lovers.”
In the demo recording, the band rolls into the track with Rotten a little lost as to where to enter. Comically, he begins to laugh and asks: “I dunno the words, I dunno how it starts I’ve forgotten it. Hold on stop a second”. But the band don’t stop; they continued, urging their frontman to find his rhythm. “Stop, stop, stop,” he continued. “Shout out how it starts whats the first line”.
Hilariously, Paul Cook, the Pistols’ drummer, replied: “One, two, three, four, five, six”. Have a listen to the rendition, below.